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CONDENSATION - THE BASICS

Condensation is the most common form of dampness i n buildi ngs. Indeed, it appears to be
more of a problem i n modern properties than our historic buildings due to the i ntroduction of
double glazing, draught exclusion which basically cut down the natural ventilation of the
property. Older properties, say, with sash windows, open fire-places and gaps around the
original doors and wi ndows are far less likely to be severely affected by surface
condensation.

The water in the air which causes surface condensation is basically derived from ' life-style',
mainly cooking, bathing and just general acti vities and breathi ng; these, coupled with a lack
of ventilation cause the greatest problems. It must be fully appreciated that the amount of
water contributed to the internal environment of a property from dampness i n walls, floors,
etc, is considered to be negligible

Moisture and relative humidity
Before looking at condensation it is necessary to understand a little about water vapour i n
the air.

At any given temperature the air can hold a given level of water as vapour - the warmer the
air the greater the potential amount of water vapour that can be held. For example:

Air at 10C is saturated when it contains 7.6g water per kg dry air
and,
air at 20C is saturated when it contai ns 15.3g water per kg dry air - just over double.

So if we know the maximum amount of water that can be held it is very useful to know how
'saturated' the air actually is, i.e., what is the proportion of actual water vapour compared to
the maximum amount that can be held at a given temperature. This proportion is known as
the RELATIVE HUMIDITY (rh) and is expressed as a percentage.

Relati ve humidity can therefore be defined one way as the actual amount of water vapour i n
the air expressed as a percentage of the maximum amount of water vapour that could be
held at the same temperature.

So air, say, at 10C could hold 8 grams of water vapour at its maximum, and if in reality only
4 grams was actually found, then the relati ve humidity would be 4/8 x 100 = 50% i.e., the air
is 50% saturated. Similarly air at say 20C could hold around 14 grams of water vapour at
maximum, but if we found only 7 grams in the air then the relati ve humidity would also be
7/14 x 100 = 50% at that temperature.










Condensation and dew point:
What happens if we cool moisture at laden air?

We know that cold air cannot hold as much water vapour as warm air, so as the
temperature drops the relati ve
humidity i ncreases.
The figure to the right illustrates
why this is so Imagi ne the air as
a 'bucket' holdi ng a proportion of
water. As the air is cooled the
'bucket' get smaller and therefore
the proportion of water increases
with decli ne i n bucket size. If air
is conti nued to be cooled, the
'bucket' will dimi nish to a size
where it is now full with water,
i.e., it is 100% full; if the air is
cooled any further the 'bucket'
will become even smaller and the
water overflow. In reality this
occurs where the air temperature
has cooled so much that it can no longer hold the water as vapour. When this happens
liquid water drops out of the air as CONDENSATION. The temperature at which
condensation begins, i.e., when the relative humidity reaches 100% (air is fully saturated) is
the DEW POINT temperature.
Surface condensation
The cause of surface condensation is where
moisture laden air comes i nto contact with a
suitably cold surface - any surface i ncludi ng walls,
floors, sub-floor areas, roof spaces, etc
As moisture-laden air gets close to the cold
surface it starts to get cooled and so the
relati ve humidity i ncreases; the greater it is
cooled the higher the relati ve humidity
(remember water from a large bucket
passing to a small bucket as explained
above). Against the cold surface the
temperature of the air now drops below the
dew point temperature and liquid water
drops out as condensation.
Where does the water come from?
Water comes from the ' life-style' - just
normal everyday li ving (see table below).
The amount of water produced from normal household acti vities can be quite considerable.
Certain other acti vities such as usi ng bottled gas and paraffin heaters add significant
amounts of water to the air, the by-product of burning these fuels. Dryi ng clothes over
radiators will also significantly add water vapour. Also consider that the surface area of your
lungs is in excess of 75 square metres and warm air is passing over this wet surface as we
breathe 15-20 times per minute; this is being breathed back i nto the environment! Indeed, it
is reported that a large dog can give off even more water vapour than the average adult!

Water vapour source
(average house/day)
Approx water
generated
(in litres)
4/5 people asleep: 1.5
2 people active: 1.6
Cooking: 2.6
Washing up: 1.0
Washing clothes: 4.0
Drying clothes: 4.5
Bathing/washing: 0.5
Approx. total 15.7

Contrary to popular belief, damp walls form rising/penetrati ng damp, and damp floors do
not add significantly to the water burden i n the air because water evaporation from such
'static' surfaces is very low compared to breathing and other acti ve water producing
activities. Indeed, recent figures obtained from Bui lding Research Establishment usi ng a
validated model showed that a "saturated" floor slab of 8sq.m i n a room at 60% rh and
20C lost around 36mls water per day, ie, 5 tea spoons full! This compares to around the
15 litres of so (nearly 4 gallons) produced from normal household activities. Indeed, and
individual often produces 10 litres of water per day just form simple occupati onal acti vities.
Furthermore, it becomes quite evident that gi ven the rate of drying of a wall (1 month for
every 25mm in thickness) then water is lost very slowly to the environment and even then
most of the water passes outwards. Why? Water vapour exerts a pressure (it is part of the
atmospheric pressure) and over most of the year there is more water vapour in a building
that externally. In an unoccupied property external water vapour will balance with internal
water vapour, but as soon as the building becomes occupied water vapour is generated
internally and adds to the environmental water burden - the more water vapour, the greater
the vapour pressure. This now means that there is a greater vapour pressure internally
than external and so water vapour now passes down its vapour pressure gradient, ie, from
inside to outside.
Thus, the most likely direct cause of surface condensation is 'life-style' , ie, water produced
by the occupants activities, coupled with i nsufficient ventilation. Occasionally one can fi nd a
'normal' life-style but certain areas of walls or cold spots (e.g., dense concrete lintels) are
sufficient cold to allow condensate and mould growth to form.
Mould growth
Water vapour in the atmosphere alone causes no problems - certainly not health problems.
Indeed, constant inhalation of very dry air can. However, condensation and mai ntenance of
high humidities does lead to mould growth. This can usually be detected frequently by the
musty odour associated with damp. Where such conditions occur it is mould spores i n large
numbers that may cause some to experience health problems.
The most common mould associated with condensation is the 'black spot' mould,
Aspergillus niger. However, other moulds may also develop - it depends on the substrate
and conditions. For example, some moulds will
readily colonise leather at relati ve humidities
maintai ned around 76% whilst on brick and paint
relati ve humidities in excess of 88% are reported
required. Green and yellow moulds may be
present; some white moulds are occasionally
mistaken for efflorescent salts.
It should be appreciated that some black moulds
may be one of the 'toxic moulds', the most well
know being Stachybotrys chartarum. This
particular mould is black and slimy; it also requires
a cellulose based substrate, i.e., paper and cardboard. So care may need to be taken when
investigating the nature of mould growth.
It is the mould growth that tends to cause the most concern because not only do they
produce the musty odour but also cause decorative spoi ling, and also spoiling of fabric in
some cases. Moulds, once germi nated, require the mai ntenance of persistently high
relati ve humidities, usually over 75%, but frequently much higher. Moulds therefore have a
tendency to develop in those areas where air
flow is limited and the air remai ns damp and
stagnant, e.g., corners, floor/wall junctions,
etc, where we can frequently see 'triangular'
patterns of moulds very typical of a
condensation problem (photo above).
Don't expect to maintain relative humidities
less than 75% duri ng periods the summer;
moisture contents of the external air are such
that relati ve humidities internally i n excess of
this will naturally occur.
Beware of relative humidity figures alone
without knowing the temperature! It can lead to
misdiagnosis! For example in a recent case
the air was reported to be at 65% relati ve
humidity. The surface of the solid floor was
pronounced to be 85% relative humidity from
which it was stated that the floor was damp,
possibly a damp-proof membrane defect.
However, i nvestigation showed the floor to be
dry (no capillary moisture) and, as one would expect, several degrees cooler than the
ambient air temperature. This would mean that the relati ve humidity at the floor surface was
higher! Someone hadn't considered that the relative humidity increases as the temperature
falls!
And on the same principal, don't stick a relative humidity probe into a wall as a
measurement of possible dampness - the wall is likely to be colder than the internal air
temperature, and the coldness will i ncrease the relati ve humidity with the same amount of
water vapour in the air (NB the 'buckets' described above)-- the higher relati ve humidity
obtained may not reflect 'dampness' in a wall, just the difference i n temperature! You have
been warned!
Finally, on the use of electronic hygrometers. Some recent tests showed that for some
electronic hygrometers to come into equilibrium with the surrounding environment took
some considerable time. Thus, taking the i nstrument out of a cold car and using it
immediately in a property would certai nly give VERY misleading results. The instrument
MUST be allowed to come up to room temperature (or down). Some initial tests suggests
that as a rule of thumb you give a mi nimum of 10 minutes plus 3 minutes for each degree
change in temperature. For example coming from a cold car, say 10C i nto a room at
around 20C will take 10 + (10 x 3) = 40 mi nutes before one should contemplate recordi ng
data.